The internet of things and other tales from the digital edge

There’s more to Stellenbosch than just students and wine

Stellenbosch University is at the cutting edge of digital science, thanks to the MIH Electronic Media Laboratory. No stranger to innovation; it is after all the home of pinotage wine. Thanks to Professor Perold in 1925, the first professor of viticulture, he grafted together two vines; pinot noir and hermitage, and voila, our patriotic wine was born.

Back in the future, Dr Herman Engelbrecht, research manager of the lab is taking me to go see it. As we walk, our shoes ringing on the cement, Herman stops at a glass wall with outward facing laptops. Peering inside the room, I see aeroplane models and other gadgets. “UVAs,” says Herman. “Sorry,” he says seeing my look, “engineers love acronyms.  Unmanned aerial vehicles—planes that can fly themselves.”

CEO of Naspers, Koos Bekker travelled the globe, and found that in comparison South African’s internet landscape was severely lacking. At the time, a shift was happening at Naspers—from being a primarily print company to focusing on new media.

It was with this in mind, that Bekker started funding the Media Lab. At its inception there were only four students, today when we enter the lab, there are 27 each working on their own projects.

“The whole internet has changed the way we relate to each other,” says Herman. “We’re not just interacting with technology, but with each other in the virtual world.” The lab certainly looks like geek’s paradise. There’s a blackboard scribbled with white chalk, and on closer inspection I see it’s a diagram on how to make coffee. There are Star Wars posters on the walls, and replicas all over desks, as well as coffee mugs stamped with the lab’s logo; a pixilated Mario, from the Mario’s Brothers game.

Game on

The various research projects can be divided into five main categories; Augmented Reality, Media Distribution, Gaming, Next-Generation Web and Human Computer Interaction.

Augmented Reality:

 “This,” says Herman “is a window-in-world device.” He’s showing me a splayed laptop that is hooked up to pipes and wires. “Augmented Reality is about adding information to the physical world,” he says. “For instance, you could map your way around the city, either with a dotted line or arrow pointing you along your way. Or, for example, if you’re in Korea, you could point your phone at a sign and have it translated.”

The dismembered prototype on the desk, is actually a laptop with the screen taken off and cameras inserted; the idea is that if you look through the one side it’ll be ‘transparent’, so you’re basically seeing ‘reality’, the trick is to then imbed information into this view.

Media Distribution:

By now we’ve moved down the line to Oswald Jumira’s desk. Taking off his headphones he looks up with a big smile. “I’m working on how to distribute information in the most energy efficient way,” he offers. “We can use anything to transfer data; human beings, forests, buildings, moving cars…it’s called the internet of things. Sensors can be placed anywhere to record information, it’s the distribution that’s tricky.”

Gaming:

There are a quite a few students working on gaming research. I’m chatting to Johann Jungbauer; he’s trying to figure out how to make a squad smarter in games like AI. “Right now, they’re pretty dumb, and just do what they’re programmed to do,” he’s explaining. “I want to give them options to choose from, to make an intelligent decision, for example they could decide to flank the ‘enemy’.”

Francois Malherbe is researching the field of peer-to-peer (P2P) and massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs).

“To host a game, like World of Warcraft, you need millions of Dollars; the most basic set up would cost at least $12 million,” he says.  “A game like World of Warcraft, costs something like an Audi R8 per day to manage the servers.” Francois’s research is to enable the users of the game, instead of a cluster of servers somewhere in Germany, to host the data; basically sharing the information amongst their computers. Cutting the middle man right out of the picture. This has two immediate benefits; one the game’s reaction time will be quicker (it’s not going off to Germany to fetch the signal) and two, it opens up the industry for the little guy—a game could be created on a fairly small budget.

Next-Generation Web:

This area of research is quite broad; students are working on how to profile users of the web, the article recommendation system, and social network analysis.

“We’re working on ways to automatically track trends on social media,” says Peter Hayward. “For example on Twitter the bio hardly ever lives up to the tweets; instead you get lots of ‘I’m going for coffee’ updates. We call it Natural Language Processing; we try to understand the context of the message automatically. There’s loads of mathematics behind it. Figuring out what people really mean through their syntax and history; it’s so easy to misinterpret meanings.”

 Human Computer Interaction:

This body of research relies on machine learning techniques. Say, through audio-visual automatic speech recognition or automatic recognition of user-defined gestures; basically teaching a computer to think for itself.

In a digital spin

I’ve barely scratched the virtual surface of what’s happening at this dynamic lab. There are also students working on how to share T.V shows and profiling users so that while you’re watching a show it’s downloading a similar one in the background, others are watermarking videos (in the fight against piracy), and there’s much research going into mobile technology in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Who knows? The next best digital thing could be born here. When I remark to Herman, that perhaps the next Twitter or Facebook will come out of the lab. He looks at me and nods, “that’s what we’re hoping for.”

Words by Malu Lambert and photography by Antonia Heil

Get in touch and follow them on Twitter @mihmedialab, you know they won't answer those outdated things we call phones.

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